Men’s college basketball has had no dominant teams so far this season. But finally, certain teams are separating themselves from the rest of the pack.
Those teams have been more consistent than others and maximized early-season opportunities. They could be near the top of the polls from now until the seeding of the N.C.A.A. tournament.
What We Learned
Louisville is playing elite defense. The Cardinals held Michigan and Pittsburgh to an average of 44.5 points in two wins last week. Louisville also held both teams to a shooting average of 31.5 percent and 19 percent from 3-point range. “We’re a lot more connected on that end of the floor than we were last year,” said Louisville Coach Chris Mack, who is in his second season with the Cardinals. “We have older guys who have gotten so much better defensively.” Louisville is the top team in the Associated Press Top 25.
Ohio State has been the most impressive team during the first month. The Buckeyes have beaten Villanova, Cincinnati and Penn State at home to go with a 25-point rout of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. Those four victories have come by an average of 22.5 points. Ohio State will face Kentucky on Dec. 21 at the CBS Sports Classic in Las Vegas, and will take on West Virginia on Dec. 29 in Cleveland. The 2020 N.C.A.A. tournament is still months away, but Ohio State is putting itself in position for a top seed.
Gonzaga has had no drop-off. The Bulldogs lost four starters from last season’s team that lost in a regional final to Texas Tech; yet they are 10-1 following a win at Washington on Sunday night. Their only defeat came against Michigan at the Battle 4 Atlantis. All five of Gonzaga’s starters scored in double figures against the Huskies. This team doesn’t have the star power it possessed a year ago with two eventual first-round N.B.A. draft picks in Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, but it is still capable of going deep in the N.C.A.A. tournament.
What We’re Looking For This Week
UConn returns to Madison Square Garden. The Huskies face Indiana as part of the Jimmy V Classic on Tuesday. UConn has won five of its last six games after giving up 96 points in a loss to St. Joseph’s on Nov. 13. The Hoosiers are coming off a 20-point defeat at Wisconsin on Saturday. Louisville will play Texas Tech in the other game of the doubleheader.
Baylor takes a shot at undefeated Butler. The defense for Butler has been tremendous to start the season. In two games last week against Mississippi and Florida, Butler held the Rebels and the Gators to an average of 60 points. “We’ve been locked on that side of the floor,” Butler Coach LaVall Jordan said. “The thing I like about this team is everybody seems to know their roles.” Baylor is the top challenger to Kansas in the Big 12 and an off-the-radar contender to reach the Final Four.
Illinois needs a good win. The Illini outplayed Maryland for 39 minutes on Saturday before losing by 1 point in College Park. Now, they get Michigan on Wednesday night in Champaign. Illinois has yet to beat a high-major opponent this season. This will be Michigan Coach Juwan Howard’s first true road game in Big Ten play. He won his conference opener on Friday night against Iowa in Ann Arbor.
Kentucky’s next marquee opponent might be Ohio State in two weeks. The Wildcats, though, have some Power 5 competition before then with Georgia Tech and Utah. Kentucky hasn’t met a team from a power conference since it opened the season with a win over Michigan State.
The skilled, versatile Xavier junior Naji Marshall is on the verge of becoming a star. Marshall scored 31 points, grabbed eight rebounds and had five steals on Saturday against Cincinnati. He is 6 of 15 from 3-point range during his last two games. “There’s nothing he can’t do,” Xavier Coach Travis Steele said of the 6-foot-7 Marshall.
Memphis Coach Penny Hardaway has the Tigers at 8-1 over all despite the suspended freshman center James Wiseman appearing in only three games. The freshman guard Lester Quinones has played in only six games because of a hand injury. Memphis’s game on Saturday against rival Tennessee in Knoxville will be appointment television.
Purdue is significantly better than its 6-3 record. The Boilermakers could have easily won all the games they lost, and the defeats came against quality teams: Texas, Marquette and Florida State. “All three of those teams are going to have a chance to go to the N.C.A.A. tournament,” Purdue Coach Matt Painter said. “We like playing those games because those teams are different than us. Those styles are different than what we see in the Big Ten.” One thing that’s important to remember: Purdue was 6-5 last December and wound up winning 26 games and advancing to a regional final, where it lost to the eventual national champion, Virginia.
Quentin Grimes is starting to get into a rhythm for Houston after transferring from Kansas. Grimes was the best player on the floor in the Cougars’ 20-point win at South Carolina on Sunday and is averaging 20.7 points over his last three games. Coach Kelvin Sampson will most likely have this team ranked by mid-January.
The Mountain West Conference is quietly making a comeback. Its three top teams — Utah State, San Diego State and New Mexico — have wins over programs from power conferences and have a combined record of 28-3. “We’re all in this thing together,” San Diego State Coach Brian Dutcher said. “It’s not about our own team winning quality games in November and December; it’s about the whole league winning quality games. That’s how we become quality games for each other in league play.”
Rhode Island’s Fatts Russell, 5-10 junior, is playing like the best guard in the Atlantic 10. He has scored 20 or more points in seven consecutive games and is averaging 21.4 points this season. “I’ve never had a guard who had a stretch like this,” Rhode Island Coach David Cox said. Russell was a freshman two years ago when the Rams won a game in the N.C.A.A. tournament.
Cincinnati needs Jarron Cumberland to regain his previous form if it wants to play in the N.C.A.A. tournament for the 10th consecutive season. Cumberland, a preseason all-American, has had nagging injuries and is averaging only 13.9 points. He averaged 18.8 points last season, when the Bearcats won 28 games.
Games to Watch
All times are Eastern.
TUESDAY Louisville vs. Texas Tech (7 p.m., ESPN), Maryland at Penn State (7 p.m., ESPN2), Butler at Baylor (9 p.m., ESPN2), Indiana vs. UConn (9 p.m., ESPN)
WEDNESDAY Michigan at Illinois (9 p.m., Big Ten Network)
THURSDAY Iowa at Iowa State (8 p.m., ESPN2)